“Charlie don’t surf”

The return of Apocalypse Now By Ian Johnston

‘The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.’” Francis Ford Coppola, speaking at the opening of Apocalypse Now at the May 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

“Big Duke 6 to Eagle Thrust. Put on psy-war-op. Make it loud. This is a Romeo Foxtrot. Shall we dance?” Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) orders the playing of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from his attack helicopters loudspeakers before strafing a Vietnamese village.

If ever a movie qualified for the overused aphorism ”˜flawed masterpiece’, then it is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Very loosely inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, a tale of colonialism in the Belgian Congo, Coppola’s vision of the 1960’s Vietnam War, co-scripted by exceptional Right-wing director/ scriptwriter/ gun-nut John “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Milius, with Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard’s narration written by celebrated ”˜Nam correspondent Michael ”˜Dispatches’ Herr (arguably one of the most vital and underappreciated contributions to the picture), is probably as disorientating, overblown and hideously spectacular as the war itself. It is hard not to disagree with Coppola’s declaration in Cannes 1979; “My film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
Yet dialogue, characters and scenes from the film (Lt. Colonel Kilgore’s helicopter attack ”““We use Wagner. It scares the shit out of the slopes. My boys love it! “, Dennis Hopper’s unhinged photojournalist and Marlon Brando’s Coronel Walter E. Kurtz). have long entered the lexicon of everyday parlance: “Charlie don’t surf”, ”˜Terminate with extreme prejudice’, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, “Shit… charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500”, “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

When Sight & Sound magazine conducted a poll in 2002 among filmmakers and film critics concerning what were the ten best pictures of the past 25 years, Apocalypse Now topped the chart. “Apocalypse Now deserves its position for being a richly complex, madcap experiment in war film-making that comes off because it never falls from the tightrope it walks between extravagance and profundity,” opined Sight & Sound’s editor Nick James.

Certainly the ultimate futility of the conflict in Vietnam is brilliantly rendered in both Vittorio Storaro’s astoundingly detailed and yet detached cinematography and in the highly ironic narrative, in which the morally ambivalent Captain Willard (Martin Sheen in the performance of his career) is assigned to commit the assassination of a crazed but highly gifted and literate renegade American Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). As Willard heads up river towards his target “75 clicks above the Do Lung bridge”, the people he encounters and the horrors he sees leads the Captain to increasingly empathise and admire his quarry. Befitting the ultimate film concerning the world’s first “rock ”˜n’ roll war” ”˜The End’ by The Doors, The Rolling Stone’s ”˜I can’t Get No Satisfaction’ and Dale Hawkins’ immortal number ”˜Suzie Q’, are all played in key scenes within Walter Murch’s innovatory sound montage and design for Apocalypse Now and Carmine and Francis Coppola’s baleful score.

Ten years ago, director Francis Ford Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux, his re-edited, re-mixed, re-conceptualised version of his original 1979 Vietnam War opus, Apocalypse Now. Containing 49 additional minutes of previously unseen footage, Apocalypse Now Redux was now the supposedly definitive 202-minute version of Coppola’s violent, hallucinatory, existential visualization of the madness of the conflict and the ghastly invigoration of killing.
In the press notes booklet for the 2001 Apocalypse Now Redux (Redux, in the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as ‘Indicating the return of an organ to a healthy state.’) Francis Ford Coppola stated; “This new, definitive version of the film is sexier, funnier, more bizarre, more romantic and more politically intriguing. The new version doesn’t say anything differently than the old one. It just says it better and with more complexity ”“ and the themes emerge more clearly.”

This year, 32 years after the film was first released, and just over 35 years since the fateful first day of shooting in the Philippines on 20th March, 1976, Apocalypse Now is being re-released in a 153 minute running time, as a Francis Ford Coppola restored digital print in UK cinemas on 27th May, 2011. This is followed by a 3 disc special edition DVD/Blu-ray release on June 13th, which includes the 153 minute theatrical cut, Apocalypse Now Redux and, at last, the first DVD/Blu-ray issue of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s splendid 1991 documentary based on material shot by Eleanor Coppola and featuring passages from her intrepidly edifying book of diaries Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now. The special edition DVD/Blu-ray discs will include over nine hours of extras (full details below), also featuring Francis Ford Coppola in conversation for an hour with John Milius and Martin Sheen.
Whether Coppola has changed his mind once again about his deranged tour de force is obviously open to question. Perhaps the shorter original 1979 release version had been superior after all. In 2001, Coppola admitted that; “ We originally finished the film in a climate of intense press speculation ”“ ”˜that the film would never be done’ and that it was a mess’, etc. I always felt that there was more the film could do in the expression of its theme, which concerns morality in times of war”¦. Twenty-two years ago, I was under more pressure to make this film into what was then considered a ”˜normal’ war film.”

The merits of the addition of the new footage in 2001 were always debateable. In Redux, Willard’s patrol boat glides through the mist into an absurd relic of Vietnam’s colonial past – a bankrupt but still inhabited plantation where a French family have clung on with their own private army, slaughtering all who endeavour to seize it from them. This scene was the longest Coppola had inserted, featuring the burial of Lawrence Fishburn’s character Clean, a dinner party with filled with ardent prostrations by the French that the “land belongs to us. It keeps our family together. Whereas you Americans are fighting for the biggest nothing in history,” and Willard smoking a drugs with a French women named Roxanne (Aurore Clément), whom he makes love too. Roxanne tells Willard, ‘There are two of you, don’t you see? One that kills, and one that loves.” The dream-like sequence does make Willard a closer figure to the divided Kurtz, obviously illustrates another aspect of Vietnam’s recent colonial history and foretells America’s ignominious exit from the country.
But, as one wag at the time noted, did Apocalypse Now really need a long dinner party scene in the middle of the picture. More importantly, the scene was not well acted and conceived, so it was clear why Coppola had severe doubts about its merits in 1979. Other Redux scenes, in particular those in which Sheen’s fractured assassin character was more ”˜humanised’, joking with the crew of the patrol boat and stealing Kilgore’s personal surfboard, were also of dubious worth.
In March 1976, Coppola envisaged making a financially beneficial action picture about the Vietnam War ”“ a quick, easy picture after the tribulations of making the magnificent Godfather Part II. By 21st May, 1977, the 238th and final day of shooting in the Philippines, a film budgeted at $12 million for a sixteen week shooting schedule had become a $31 million epic, Coppola’s first leading man, Harvey Keitel, had been fired, his replacement Martin Sheen had suffered a near fatal heart attack, a powerful typhoon had completely decimated Coppola’s sets, Marlon Brando had finally read Heart of Darkness and a simulated napalm drop had consumed 1,200 gallons of petrol in 90 seconds.
Luckily Coppola had the footage in the can to painstakingly construct over an unprecedented two-year post-production period, with editor Richard Marks and Murch, one of the most ambitious, memorable and challenging films ever conceived – in whichever version you choose to view it. It is always worth going back up river with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, one of the most acerbic and candid expositions of modern warfare ever to reach the cinema screen.

Apocalypse Now is released in cinemas on 27th May, 2011.
Apocalypse Now 3 disc special edition DVD/Blu-ray is released on June 13th , 2011.
Details of the extras are as follows:
Disc 1: Apocalypse Now feature / Apocalypse Now Redux feature / Audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola

Tech specs:
Features running time: 153 mins / 202 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 2.35 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 5.1 DTS Master Audio
English Language

Disc 2: Interview with John Milius (49 mins) / Interview with Fred Roos (casting Apocalypse) (12 mins) / A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola (60 mins) / The Mercury Theatre on Air: Hearts of Darkness Nov 6 1938 (37 mins) / The Hollow Men (17 mins) / Monkey Sampan “Lost Scene” (3 mins) / Additional Scenes (27 mins) / Kurtz Compound Destruction with credits (6 mins) / The Birth of 5.1 sound (6 mins) / Ghost Helicopter Flyover (4 mins) / Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog (still images) / A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now (18 mins) / The Music of Apocalypse Now (15 mins) / The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now (15 mins) / The Final Mix (3 mins) / Apocalypse Then & Now (4 mins) / 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola (39 mins) / PBR Streetgang (4 mins) / The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now (4 mins) / Disc credits

Tech specs:
Total running time: 323 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 or 4:3 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 2.0 Stereo DTS / English Language

Disc 3: Hearts of Darkness feature / Audio commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola / John Milius script excerpt with Francis Ford Coppola notes / Storyboard Collection / Photo Archive: unit photography, Mary Ellen Mark photography / Marketing Archive: original trailer, radio spots, theatrical program, lobby card and press kit, photos.

Copyright © Ian Johnston 2011

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